Of Ultimatums and Ukraine: Why NATO Enlargement Is Not the Problem

Written by | Tuesday, January 18th, 2022

As tens of thousands of soldiers massed on the Ukrainian borders, on 17 December the Kremlin threw down the gauntlet. It published two draft treaties, one to be signed with the United States and the other with NATO, with no stated intention to negotiate. It’s a “take it or leave it” situation. The Ukrainian crisis has thus revealed the Russia’s true intentions: Moscow seeks to compel Western countries to overturn the entire post-Cold war security architecture, starting with the Charter of Paris it signed in 1990. In particular, the Kremlin demands that NATO refuse any new member in the East and withdraw the forces it deployed on the territory of its newest members. A true ultimatum, even though there were no explicitly stated consequences in case of a refusal. Many commentators, experts, and officials claim that NATO’s encroachment into Russia’s alleged “sphere of influence” is the cause of the Kremlin’s wrath. In fact, NATO enlargement is not the Kremlin’s primary concern. It is a convenient narrative for blaming the West.

NO BROKEN PROMISE — Many analysts and politicians have suggested that the Alliance reneged on a promise not to enlarge, and thereby provoked Russia. But there never was such promise, and this (fairly recent) narrative is a misunderstanding at best, and a rewriting of history at worst. In 1990, the United States and Germany reassured Mikhail Gorbachev that NATO forces would not be stationed in the Eastern Lander after unification. According to then-Secretary of State James Baker’s famous words, NATO military forces would move “not an inch” eastwards. This commitment was enshrined in the “Four plus two” treaty and was always respected. At that time, the Warsaw Pact still existed, and none of its members had declared their interest in joining. Mikhail Gorbachev himself has declared that “The topic of ‘NATO expansion’ was never discussed; it was not raised in those years. I am saying this with a full sense of responsibility. Not a single Eastern European country brought up the issue, not even after the Warsaw Pact had ceased to exist in 1991. Western leaders didn’t bring it up, either”.

This author can personally testify that enlargement was not a hot topic in NATO circles in 1990-1991: rather, many encouraged new democracies to seek integration into the EU as an alternative. Furthermore, at that time, when pressed by new leaders of Central Europe, both US and NATO officials told them that the issue was not on the agenda. Some Western officials such as German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher did declare that they would not seek NATO enlargement, or that they did not think it could happen. But they spoke in a personal capacity (and could not comment on other NATO members anyway). No US or NATO promise was ever made to not enlarge the East of Germany. Scholars who argue otherwise refer to alleged Soviet perceptions. But there is scant archival evidence that such perceptions existed. Moreover, such a promise would have broken the OSCE Founding Act, which grants its signatories “the right to be or not to be a party to treaties of alliance”. Finally, a simple argument should put the controversy to rest: if such assurances had been given, can one seriously believe that Moscow would not have insisted that they are put in written form and/or made public?

Moreover, up until recently the Kremlin never really complained about NATO enlargement. In 1997, Boris Yeltsin asked Bill Clinton to refuse any admission of a former Soviet Republic in the Alliance. Clinton declined. This would not deter Russia from signing the 1997 NATO-Russia Founding Act. Yeltsin later recognized that he failed to persuade Clinton and did not seem to make it a cause for the crisis. In line with Yeltsin’s admission, Vladimir Putin did not make the second wave of NATO enlargement a casus belli with the West: when it was formally decided to invite the Baltic States to join in 2002, he stated that their entry would “not be a tragedy”. That same year, Moscow welcomed the creation of the NATO-Russia Council. In fact, Mr. Putin only started to complain about NATO enlargement after his return to the presidency in 2012, concurrently with the radicalization of his domestic policies.

THE EU AS A FORCE OF ATTRACTION — The case for enlargement to the East as a NATO provocation is thus more than dubious. And the Kremlin knows very well that Ukraine, just like Georgia, is not about to join the Atlantic Alliance. To be sure, they were both offered to do so in 2008. However, due to French and German opposition in particular, this was stated just as a principle, with no immediate pathway opened to membership. (In retrospect, this may have been a bad compromise, since it opened the way for Russian military intervention without fear of Western military involvement.) As a result, there is zero chance of a consensus in the North Atlantic Council to include them any time soon.

In fact, one could argue that Ukrainian rapprochement with the European Union, not NATO, is the greatest danger for the Kremlin. By the mid-2000s, Moscow realized that former Eastern bloc countries were escaping from its orbit. A case can be made that “integration into the EU had a deeper and more integral part on the society, politics and economics of the countries involved than did NATO membership (..). Over time, leaders in most of the new member states turned their gaze to Europe rather than Russia as the focal point for their political, economic and geopolitical orientation”. Recall now that the two Russian interventions in Ukraine — Crimea and the Donbas — happened not after the promise to eventually welcome the country in NATO, but after the EU Association agreement with Brussels, thus five years later. A democratic Ukraine, increasingly tied with the West, and eventually rid of corruption, would also be an example for Russia — a truly nightmarish scenario for Mr. Putin. Recall that, in any case, he rejects the very idea of an independent Ukraine: from his standpoint, “true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia”.

ROOM FOR DISCUSSION — Does this mean that Washington and its allies should reject any discussion with Russia about the current security order? Of course not. There is for instance ground for discussions about confidence-building measures such as military exercises and “hotlines”. Russia seems to genuinely fear that Ukraine could become a platform for US offensive military equipment — the problem might be as much about “NATO in Ukraine” as about “Ukraine in NATO” — and that the Ukrainian army might one day be able to recapture its occupied territories in the Donbas. A scenario that may keep Russian planners awake at night is that of a Western-assisted offensive in Eastern Ukraine to recover its territorial sovereignty — not unlike what Croatia did in 1994. It is not inconceivable to imagine limitations to transfers of military equipment to Kyiv in return for a full acceptance and implementation by the Kremlin of the Minsk-2 agreement. There is also fear in Russian circles that NATO could install offensive missiles at the Polish and Romanian Mk-41 interceptor sites — which are designed to counter ballistic launches from the Middle East. Limitations and verification of the hardware deployed at such sites could be envisioned.

All this, of course, assumes that Russia has not already decided to act militarily — something which is unknowable at this point. And the Kremlin’s calculations may have changed one way or the other since the Kazakhstan upheavals and the Russia-led “peacekeeping” intervention in that country. The first weeks and months of the year will clarify the state of play. One should not rush into hasted negotiations with the Kremlin. Mr. Putin is losing patience as he sees Ukraine increasingly detaching itself from Russia’s orbit. The hundredth anniversary of the creation of the Soviet Union (December 1922) is now looming on the horizon, along with the next Russian presidential election (March 2024). But for once, time may be on our side.

‘Of Ultimatums and Ukraine — And Why NATO Enlargement Is Not the Problem’ — Article by Bruno Tertrais — Institut Montaigne.

The Article can be downloaded here

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